The press nicknamed him "The
Emperor," and when Akira Kurosawa died in September, his seat
on the throne as reigning monarch of Japanese film directors was
as secure as ever. At least two of his most accomplished colleagues,
Kenji Mizoguchi and Yasujiro Ozu, both of whom passed on decades
ago, owe a debt to Kurosawa, since it was the success of Rashomon
in 1951 that swiveled the international cinema spotlight toward
Japan, and brought long-deserved recognition to all three men.
Perhaps it is appropriate, then, during this time of honor for
Kurosawa, to also remember the work of Mizoguchi, a director who,
like Kurosawa (but unlike Ozu) also made films that were accessible
in the West. Mizoguchi didn’t have Kurosawa’s flair for spectacle,
and because he made films about peasants and prostitutes, not emperors
and samurai, his work seems less vital, a relic of Japanese cinema.
But the opposite is true-a closer look at Mizoguchi reveals the
timelessness of his films.
The Cahiers du Cinema critic, Jacques Rivette, once
said about the difficulty of comparing Kurosawa and Mizoguchi: "You
can compare only what is comparable and that which aims high enough.
Mizoguchi, alone, imposes a feeling of a unique world and language,
is answerable only to himself…He seems to be the only Japanese
director who is completely Japanese and yet is also the only one
that achieves a true universality, that of an individual."
The statement separates Kurosawa and Mizoguchi. Where
Kurosawa was a director who imported Western idiosyncrasies into
Japanese behavior, Mizoguchi was concerned with exploring Japanese
folk tales and feudal life. Where Kurosawa spanned genres and themes,
Mizoguchi focused almost entirely on the plight of unemancipated
women in a ritualized society. Where Kurosawa thrived on an epic,
operatic scale, Mizoguchi constructed simple worlds of subtle depth,
finding epic moments with the composition of a single frame.
Kurosawa was robust, Mizoguchi fragile. Born in 1898,
he died too young, at the age of 58, from leukemia. He had grown
up in utter poverty, and not only witnessed the selling of his
sister into prostitution, but in his teens was forced to live with
her after his mother died. Many of his films included scenes of
mothers and daughters forced by poverty and war into the geisha
life. He worked in a hospital, studied art, wrote poetry, trained
as an actor, and debuted as a director in 1922. He made 80 films
in 34 years. At least three of those, Ugetsu, Sansho the Bailiff
and The Life of Oharu are considered masterpieces of world cinema.
I remember seeing Ugetsu, set in the sixth century,
in film class 20 years ago, and being struck by its exotic look
and sound, its creation of a world seemingly out of time. When
I watched it again recently, what struck me was its humanism, its
moving compassion for men made delirious with greed, and the sorrow
engendered by their actions. Ugetsu is a ghost story with a simple
moral, a story of forgiveness and repentance, told in a time of
feudal war. In that, it supports Rivette’s claim of Mizoguchi’s
universality, his respect for individuals and his compassion for
the mistakes individuals make. The price his characters paid for
following their artistic or moral bliss was often exile. Especially
at this juncture of our own history, with politicians making histrionic
judgments about morality and truth, Mizoguchi still speaks to all
"You never realize your folly until misery catches
up with you," says a woman in Ugetsu, whose husband has left
her to pursue his dream of becoming a great samurai. Women bear
the brunt of that folly. They are enslaved, raped, whored out to
madams and pimps. Mizoguchi shows us how geishas, dressed in costumes
and accorded a false respect, were really only product, bought
and sold as concubines. In his heartwrenching Life of Oharu (1952),
a young woman is shamed by a forbidden love affair, her lover beheaded,
and she sold off by her father. It’s a measure of Mizoguchi’s great
feeling for women that Oharu retains her dignity even when she’s
homeless,left playing a lute for coins. The final image is of Oharu
alone, exiled for life and wandering like a ghost, but self-contained
with stubborn pride.
In his earlier Utamaro and his Five Women (1946),
women are art objects, to be literally painted upon. A great artist,
Utamaro does just that, finding women in brothels with skin like
porcelain. In one scene, a perverted lord lines up a couple of
dozen girls (Mizoguchi tracks his camera down the row of frightened
young women, like sheep about to be sheared), forces them to undress
to their underwear, and then gleefully watches them run into the
sea and splash in the water.
Women were central to his films and to the men in
his films. "For a man’s success, someone has to suffer," says
the abandoned wife in Ugetsu. Without women to enslave, to desire,
to leave, the men would be at loose ends. But the director was
forgiving of his men. He saw their behavior as understandable,
corrupted as they were by tradition and war. His films ended only
after his men had changed and repented.
Mizoguchi was a master at what the French call "mise
en scene," an architect of deep focus set-ups, where the action
within the frame is so complex that the story turns and changes,
not through cutting and sequencing, but with characters coming
and going through doorways or crossing from left to right. He designed
an environment that was open and available to event, with windows
and screens that hinted at the chaotic world about to come crashing
through. He put people in the background of a shot, bustling through
their daily lives. He swept his camera fluidly across peasants
as they gathered up what they could before fleeing an invasion.
He craned and panned with precise intent in order to reveal a new
landscape, or to allow us to stand back from a scene that may be
too horrific to get close to. He did it not to judge, but to reflect
on the horror and helplessness.
There is violence in Mizoguchi, but it’s spare and
momentous. A woman is stabbed to death with a baby on her back
in Ugetsu. Slaves are branded on the forehead in Sansho the Bailiff.
He saw life’s ugliness and depicted it on film, but he knew that
beauty lurked beneath the brutality, and he sought to find that,
Sansho the Bailiff (1954), set in the 11th century,
is about a family torn apart by war. A young boy, his sister and
mother are on a journey to see their father, who was exiled years
before. Along the way they are separated from their mother by bandits.
The mother becomes a whore, her children slaves to a small-time
war lord. The boy grows up to be a brute, the sister drowns herself,
the boy repents and runs away, soon learning that his father is
dead. It’s a canvas primed for broad strokes of sentimentality
and vagueness, but Mizoguchi focused on the conflict between survival
and conscience; between the overwhelming ruthlessness of mankind
vs. the human heart.
The black and white of his films, the marbled shades
of gray, are beautiful to behold. His cinematographer on Ugetsu,
Floating Weeds, Sansho the Bailiff and others was Kazuo Miyagawa,
who rivaled Gregg Toland (Citizen Kane) in his command of moving
the camera and the way his light illuminated not just the far reaches
of a frame, but a state of mind, as well. With Miyagawa, Mizoguchi
captured the poetry in the elements-steam, water, earth, and sky-often
in moments of devastating sadness. The sister’s drowning in Sansho
takes place off screen. After she’s thrown herself into a pond,
we see only a single splash, and then the ripples silently fanning
In Ugetsu, a man named Genjuro, who has abandoned
his family for greed, falls in love with a rich woman who praises
him as a great artist, but she turns out to be a ghost. When Genjuro
discovers this, he lashes out in terror, slashing wildly with his
sword at the camera as it inexorably closes in on him. The scene
is played in alternating patterns of dark, light, shadow, and silhouette,
with the unnerving screech of cymbals and lutes on the soundtrack.
In that one awful moment, Genjuro knows he may have lost everything
because of his betrayal. All that’s left to him are ghosts.
Mizoguchi films Genjuro’s return to his house in
a single take. He walks through it end to end. It is dark and empty.
The camera pans with him as he exits through the back door; we
see him outside through the windows, and he comes back in the front
door to find his wife and son now there, a fire lit, warmth and
home returned. Genjuro doesn’t question how this is possible, his
relief is so great, his regret for his greed so palpable. His wife
comforts him, he falls asleep with his son. It is upon awakening
that he learns his wife was killed and it was her ghost that greeted
him the night before.
That shot, that one flowing minute of film, is so
complete in its synthesis of movement, sound, light, expression,
intellect, and profound emotion that it reminds us of what the
tools of filmmaking can achieve-metaphor, transcendence, purity-when
put in the unique hands of a great artist.
Only a handful of Kenji Mizoguchi’s films are available
on video, and you’ll have to look hard for them. But Ugetsu, Sansho
the Bailiff, and Life of Oharu are must-sees. Remember they were
made more than 40 years ago, and then think of the last theatrical
release you saw that moved you so deeply. MM